Off Center
Ever since agents at VPI’s Customer Care Center started moving out, a lot of things have started moving up – things like agent retention rates, individual performance results, and the contact center’s ability to consistently hit its service level target.

Of course, such improvements are exactly what VPI had hoped for when it decided to implement its home agent program in the first place back in 2007.

“The at-home agent program began with a desire to increase agent engagement and to provide more staffing flexibility,” says Debbie Carter, senior director of Operations at VPI.

The program started out as a small pilot with five home agents, but has since bloomed into a full-fledged telecommuting initiative featuring 22 remote workers – with plans to add 10 more very soon.

“Starting with a small number made it easy for senior management to buy-in,” Carter explains. “Launching the program as a pilot created a more comfortable environment for all involved, as it removed the ‘succeed or fail’ filter and allowed for the testing and learning process to evolve with the agents and management.”

Any concerns about failure that might have existed back then have no doubt been quelled since. Agent turnover in the contact center has gone from the 50%+ range annually to about 12% today in 2010, and the center rarely if ever misses its 80/20 service level objective (thanks in large part to the more flexible staffing model home agents provide). Carter acknowledges that the dramatic decrease in turnover cannot be attributed entirely to the introduction of home agents (the center has implemented several other engagement initiatives that have had an impact), but says that the at-home agent program has certainly been a big contributing factor. 

Selection Process Pinpoints Reps Who Are “Remotely” Ready

VPI doesn’t let just any ol’ employee work in their pajamas. Reps need to earn the right to work from home, Carter explains.  

“We have a 'reward for performance' plan in place.  Agents are scored based on performance in attendance, schedule adherence and quality.  The agents are then ranked based on a cumulative score.  Of those who are interested in participating in our at-home program, we select in order of their scoring.”

Each candidate must meet the following specific criteria before being considered for an at-home position:

• Must be within the Customer Care Department for no less than six months.
• Must be in good standing and must have demonstrated a history of reliable and responsible behavior.
• Must have the ability to establish priorities and manage time as well as have a full understanding of the operations of the organization.
• Must have demonstrated a proven track record of personal motivation that is reflected in past performance ratings.
• Must not be on any level of discipline (which includes performance, attendance or behavior.)

Once selected for a coveted at-home position, agents must carefully read and sign the center’s formal “Telecommuting Policy & Procedure” work agreement, which documents such things as the work and performance standards that agents must meet/maintain, the compensation and benefits they’ll receive, the equipment and safety requirements involved, as well as policies concerning confidentiality and data security.  The agreement also states where exactly the agent will be working, their scheduled hours, and a termination of agreement clause.

The telecommuting agreement is valid for one year. Provided that the home agent adheres to all the policies and procedural requirements throughout the year, a subsequent one-year agreement is offered and signed. 

Home Agent-Enabling Tools and Tactics

Although they are working remotely, the home agents are strongly connected to the contact center – and to customers. Among the technologies and applications that drive VPI’s successful virtual workforce model include:

• High-speed Internet connections
• Secure VPN solution for agent connections
• An Avaya phone system featuring virtual routing capabilities
• A Verint quality and workforce application (Impact 360) that enables the QA Department to easily and effectively monitor agents.
• Various web-enabled applications that provide home agents with easy access to key data/resources.
• Email and instant messaging capabilities for immediate communication with peers and leadership.

While all quality monitoring and related coaching for home agents is conducted virtually, as is most continuous training, home agents do occasionally visit the contact center facility. Such visits provide remote staff with some valuable face-to-face time with supervisors, trainers and peers.

“Currently, our at-home agent program requires an agent to reside within 100 miles of the office.  This is so that they can make a ‘reasonable’ commute to the office if needed for training or some other need that may arise,” explains Carter. Still, she adds, the center is able to make exceptions to that rule if it means retaining talented staff who are moving out of the area. “We currently have three agents for whom we have made special arrangements as they have moved out of state, but it is not a practice with which we actively engage.”

Of course, VPI has plenty of ways to keep home agents in the loop and fully engaged without having them come into the actual center.

“It all comes down to communication,” says Patricia Roseboro, Customer Care supervisor in charge of the Telecommuter Team. “The VPI Customer Care Department has a monthly newsletter, Paws & Claws, and our [home agent] team also has our own newsletter, which is about the team and what is going on with their lives – things you would talk about in the break room. In addition, daily emails are sent with department updates, and we also sometimes include a fun quiz to ensure that the information has been understood.”

Roseboro adds that instant messaging (IM) is also a very useful tool to communicate with each home agent, and for them to communicate with their peers. “Team members use IM to help each other when they have questions. Team challenges help build camaraderie and also help home agents not feel isolated.”
While enabling agents to work from home is a big incentive and a source of motivation in itself, many contact centers overlook the importance of also including remote workers in the center’s formal rewards and recognition programs. VPI is careful not to exclude home-based staff from such programs, but acknowledges it isn’t always easy.

“It’s a challenge to make sure the rewards and recognition program keeps the telecommuters in mind,” says Roseboro. “For example, a team lunch is nice – if you are working in the office. When we give a telecommuter a gift card to make up for the team lunch they miss, they get taxed on the proceeds they received. This takes away from the reward. You really need to think outside the box.”

Virtual Delight

While there may be some small challenges and drawbacks associated with working remotely, don’t expect to hear any of VPI’s home agents complaining or offering up their position.

It may have taken some getting used to, but the center’s telecommuters today all feel right at home.

"Whenever I see the thunderstorms and lightning outside, the cold freezing ice on the roads, the price of gas and coffee going up, I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to work from home," says VPI home agent Yvonne Silva.

Agent Karen Morrone expresses similar sentiments.

“I love telecommuting. I feel happy my company helps me balance a work and home life since I have school-age children. I get to be the best mom I can be, and I'm a happy worker. I give my best each day because I'm lucky to have this great opportunity.”  

VPI – the Big Picture:
Location: Brea, Calif.
Hours of operation: Mon-Fri 5am to 7pm, and Sat 7am-3:30pm – Pacific Time
Number of agents: 102
Products/services provided: Handles all contacts from existing and potential VPI customers regarding the company’s premium pet insurance products.
What’s so great about them? Launched a home agent pilot in 2007 that has since blossomed – bringing huge benefits in terms of employee engagement and operational performance.

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